The regular-season stretch run for the Gophers men's hockey team was reduced from six to four games with the cancellation of next week's series at Penn State, a development that gave added importance to this weekend's home set against Michigan State.
Behind a goal and two assists from Brannon McManus and a goal and an assist from Sampo Ranta and Jackson LaCombe, the fourth-ranked Gophers took care of business with a 4-2 victory over the Spartans on Friday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
The victory was the third consecutive for the Gophers, and one that coach Bob Motzko gave a "B-plus" grade.
"I liked us in stretches tonight,'' Motzko said. "We didn't string it all together, but we strung enough together.''
Jack LaFontaine's shutout streak ended at two games, but the senior goalie made 19 saves for his NCAA-best 16th victory. Ben Meyers also scored for Minnesota (18-5, 14-5 Big Ten), which leads the conference with a .737 winning percentage in league games. Second-place Wisconsin, which has five games remaining to the Gophers' three, beat Notre Dame 4-2 and has a .684 winning percentage. The Big Ten will use winning percentage to determine its standings and tournament seedings if teams finish the regular season with an unbalanced number of games played.
Tommy Apap scored a shorthanded goal and Josh Nodler also scored for Michigan State (7-12-2, 5-11-1). Goalie Drew DeRidder made 34 saves as the Gophers outshot MSU 38-21.
"We had good moments and bad moments,'' said Ranta, whose 15 goals rank second nationally. "… We still have another gear we can hit.''
After the Gophers took a 2-0 lead in the first period on Meyers' 10th goal of the season and defenseman LaCombe's fourth tally (and 17th point), McManus and Ranta put together a couple of memorable moments in the final two periods.
Sprung on a second-period rush by Ranta, McManus cut across the front of the crease and partly whiffed on his shot. But the puck fooled DeRidder like a changeup and slowly trickled in for a goal and 3-0 lead.
"I think I hit the defenseman's stick more than I got the puck, and it kind of messed with the goalie's mind a bit,'' McManus said. "I'll take it.
Michigan State cut the lead to 3-1 at 14:42 of the second on Apap's shorthanded breakaway, ending LaFontaine's shutout streak at 153 minutes, 59 seconds.
McManus and Ranta, though, answered in the third.
McManus stole the puck at the Gophers blue line and started a two-on-none breakaway with Ranta. McManus waited for DeRidder to commit, then passed to Ranta, who slammed the puck home at 6:32 for a 4-1 lead.
"He's a goal-scorer,'' McManus said. "… He ain't gonna miss those.''
That duo has combined for five goals and six assists in the past three games.
"McManus is playing the best hockey he's played in a while, and Ranta stays steady,'' Motzko said. "And [center Scott] Reedy, coming off his injury, is getting back to form.''
Michigan State trimmed the lead to 4-2 on Nodler's goal, but the Gophers held on, capping a 4-for-4 night on the penalty kill in the final two minutes.
"We've just got to empty the tank tomorrow,'' McManus said of Saturday's finale. "… We're basically in playoff hockey now.''